We Should Stop Celebrating Columbus

It’s that time of year again.  In midtown Manhattan, people are gearing up for the annual “Columbus Day Parade” which will disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 72nd Street.  I won’t be joining in the celebration.

Like most school children in the U.S., I was taught the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.”  It’s a lie that conveniently leaves out much of the truth about Columbus’ crimes against humanity.  And, this lie continues to be used by advertisers to sell products.  The spam from one retailer in my inbox this week featured the subject line, “Columbus Discovered America, and You Can Discover Savings at Barnes & Noble.” Uhm, thanks but no thanks B&N.

While the local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage,” I think it’s long past time we reject the myth of Columbus “discovering America,” and instead, recognize the indigenous people who already lived in the U.S. when Columbus stumbled upon it.

Curley, member of the Crow nation

(Curley, member of the Crow nation: image source)

By celebrating Columbus, we replay the legacy of colonialism and genocide. Let’s be clear. Columbus was no hero and doesn’t deserve a celebration. The history of Columbus’ record of genocide is not in dispute. When he traveled to the Caribbean (he never stepped foot on the North American continent), there were something like 75 million indigenous people living here. Within a generation of his landing, perhaps only 5-10% of the entire American Indian population remained. When Columbus and the men who traveled with him under the Spanish flag returned to the area we now call the West Indies, they took the land and launched widespread massacres, including of children, a process they described as “pacification”. (For more on this history, see this, this and this.)

Yet, despite the genocide that followed in his wake, some see the embrace of Columbus as a national hero and the Columbus Day holiday as a response to racism and discrimination experienced by Italian immigrants here in the U.S.  Tommi Avicolli-Mecca writes:

I understand why Italian-Americans embraced Columbus. When we arrived in this country, we weren’t exactly greeted with open arms, any more than any other immigrants. There were NINA (No Italian Need Apply) notices in store windows, as well as lynchings in the South, where we were considered nonwhite.

And, like so many other holidays, this one is a bit misguided. In point of fact, Columbus is a man with a tenuous link to contemporary Italy.  As you’ll recall from the grade school rhyme, Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492; contemporary Italy wasn’t a country until 1861.

Still, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be celebrating Italian Americans’ heritage and contributions to the U.S.  I just think we should be focusing on the radical tradition of some Italian Americans, such as Mario Savio, Vito Marcantonio, and Sacco and Vanzetti.

There is a strong, radical history among Italian Americans that has been largely forgotten.  In their book, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism (Praeger 2003), Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, help uncover some of this history.  Their edited volume shows that in contrast to their present conservative image (cf. Carl Paladino’s anti-gay remarks), Italian Americans played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century.  Italian Americans were leaders in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the same time, they built vibrant radical Italian immigrant communities that replicated the traditions, cultures, and politics of the old country.  For example, Italian immigrants formed their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture.

This radical subculture of Italian Americans was oppositional to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italys) and the dominant culture of capitalist America. Yet, for the most part, this radical tradition has been set aside in favor of the hagiography of Columbus and, frankly, the valorizing of settler colonialism.

In recent years, several cities have begun to reject the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day.

Protest against Columbus Day in Seattle

(Protest in Seattle, 2014: image source)

Berkeley, California, was the first city to do so in 1992. Seattle and Minneapolis followed its lead in October 2014, generating the movement’s current momentum. Since then, seven more municipalities — including Lawrence, Kansas, Portland, Oregon, and Bexar County, Texas (where San Antonio is located)— have joined their ranks.

Whether to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, or the radical tradition of working class Italian Americans, it’s time to recognize that Columbus was no hero. We should stop celebrating him.

All lives DON’T Matter! As Much Evidence Shows

Dear People Who Dream That We Already Live in A Colorblind Country,

I wish that there was equality among the races. But my dream doesn’t make it real. Recognize your special privilege of living in a make-believe United States in which race does not matter.
Look around you. Carefully. Don’t be fooled by those who will cause you to fear that you’re losing your location of primacy in the United States. Don’t ignore that it’s only by dividing the U.S. into white and ‘others’ that you will become a minority and the country will become a majority-minority nation in 2042 or 2044 or whenever this seismic shift is supposed to take place. The U.S. Census Bureau states that in 2060 whites will be “just” 44 percent of the population! “Just” 44 percent! A cursory examination of the data indicates that white will still be the largest single racial category at that time. And given that the second largest single racial/ethnic category is expected to be 17.4 percent—for Hispanics—I don’t think you need to panic quite yet!

Recognize that you must be living with a siege mentality to think that those kinds of numbers signal your demise. And that it is this kind of us versus them, inability to see the inhumanity of the treatment of black and brown people in the U.S. that leaves you surprised at the pain, anger, and frustration that even a nice, middle-class, highly educated, black woman like me feels.

Pick an arena in which there is not clear evidence that blacks suffer racial discrimination today: Housing? Education? Employment? Criminal justice? Income? Wealth? Healthcare? Politics? Aesthetics? Keep looking. And that’s why videotaped evidence that strongly suggests police brutality has generated such fury. Black America knows that race matters and hopes you would acknowledge that cancer; why is it that this is the only illness that otherwise sane people argue should be ignored?

Of course, all lives matter! Who would find that idea controversial? And yet, you seem to want to brandish those words in opposition to the insistence that Black Lives Matter. Why? It occurs to me that there is some confusion by many (mostly white, I think) Americans about the name of that movement. Here is my disclaimer: Although I am black, I don’t know, nor speak for, the Black Lives Matter organizers. Still, I imagine that despite their yearning to make it their slogan, they just could not get the following to fit on protest signs and T-shirts:

Black lives SHOULD matter as much as white lives. And brown lives should matter as much as white lives. All lives should matter equally! But they don’t. They haven’t historically. And they don’t matter today.
We are hurt and dismayed by the lack of value of our lives. We are gunned down in the streets by those who are paid to serve and protect us, and although there have been some financial settlements to a few families, overall these murders don’t seem to matter to many whites or those in charge of the criminal justice system.

Many police do an excellent job of serving and protecting us. And we’re thankful for that. We also know that we are more likely than whites to be pulled over for any number of offenses—imagined or real. For example, in Tampa, we are—hopefully this is being corrected with media coverage—more likely to be stopped and ticketed by the cops when we ride a bicycle!

The prison boom in the U.S. that has us imprisoning more people—proportionate to our population—than any other country in the world is fed by black and brown bodies, disproportionately. In fact, among the incarcerated, blacks and Hispanics are represented at more than twice their actual proportion of the population. Although it is primarily black and brown men feeding the prison monster, black and brown women are also being incarcerated in record numbers.
Do you think we are inherently dangerous, violent, evil people and that that’s why we are overrepresented among the incarcerated? Do you think that “they” wouldn’t put us in jail if “we” didn’t do “something”?

Exactly what did those five black and brown kids in New York do to Trisha Meili—“the Central Park jogger” who was brutalized in 1989? NOTHING! And yet they were tried as adults, described as wild animals, and served many of their formative years behind bars. James Bain spent 35 years in jail; what did he do? He did not commit the crime for which he was incarcerated.

Why did the following black men and women die? Tyre King, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Levonia Riggins, Alton B. Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Dontre Hamilton.

And then there are these black men and women. Why did they also die?:

John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald.

What of countless others?

During this same era, a white man flew a gyrocopter on the lawn of the White House in broad daylight, worrying that the law enforcement would kill him. This was not an authorized landing, and yet no shots were even fired at Doug Hughes. Having admitted to Secret Service long before he pulled the stunt, that he had the gizmo, and planned to do something big, Hughes flew in protected airspace. We are thrilled that Hughes lived to tell us that he feared being blown out of the sky and that he was able to have his day in court. We are enraged that the persons named in the partial, but long list above did not have the same opportunity. The revolting actions of one deranged man against police do not negate any of this injustice. After all, black lives matter.

Janis Prince is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo University.

The “Birther” Movement: Whites Defining Black

Hallelujah I say, Hallelujah! Did you hear the news? Did ya? After sending a team of investigators to Hawaii, drawing the attention of the national and international media, and leading an almost six year charge of infesting the mind of those already under the influence of the white racial frame into a catnip type psychological and emotional frenzy; the “benevolent one,” Donald J. Trump, has publically and emphatically acknowledged that our President of the United States of America is—get this, “an American!” Yes it is true. Republican presidential nominee and town jester, Trump on Friday, September 16, 2016 recognized in a public forum for the first time in eight years that President Obama was indeed born in the U.S. After not only leading, but becoming synonymous with what many have described as the “birther movement,” Trump has conceded and given up on furthering the conspiracy theory that our President is not an American citizen.

Listening today in regard to the news coverage of the spectacle orchestrated by Trump, while at the same time attempting to foil my biological reaction to orally evacuate my stomach, I witnessed the all too common deflecting and reflecting of liberal and conservative political pundits on my big screen at home, and upon the satellite radio broadcasting platform. I also heard the babbling and flippant shrilling response by the mostly nearsighted list of news celebrity commentary analysts (i.e., any nut job with an opinion barbarously willing to spin emotions and misdirection to the masses absent of critical thinking). In my analysis, I argue that the heart of the issue was not discussed or investigated with a third eye, so to speak. Beyond the attempts to brush Trump’s statement off by conservatives, liberals spoke of Black anger. Specifically, the anger that they discussed was in relations to the manner in which most Blacks feel in regard to the delegitimizing of President Obama. I have come to the conclusion that their examination of the core regarding the discussion was flawed. Further, what was missed from discussion related to the initial start of the birther movement to Trump’s recent declaration is simple, but at the same time extremely complicated. Donald Trump is simply a contemporary example of a wealthy elite White male, within a long line of wealthy elite White males, exercising their self given authority to define us, determining our place in this society. The ability to hamper our ability to construct our narrative is as old to this country as the U.S. flag. This is what I feel unconsciously angers most Blacks—well, at least me.

Historically and legislatively, beginning with the transaction of Dutch traders selling twenty Africans in Virginia in 1619, Whites have controlled our definition. For example, Whites struggled between categorizing Black slaves as both indentured and lifetime slaves. Before slavery as we know it developed fully into an institution, slaves existed in a state of uncertainty. For example, a number of legislative pieces between 1639 and 1659-60, depicted black servants not as merely property, but instead as members of a shared community alongside Whites of diverse classes, including wealthy Burgesses and indentured servants. In 1659–1660, Virginia colony law fully institutionalized Black slavery for the first time. The law shaped the perspective of categorizing African slaves as commodities. Just like other items imported into the colony from abroad, African slaves were considered “other” or property. The idea of personhood like that of whites was completely absent. This perspective was galvanized in 1776 under the Articles of Confederation enacted by Continental Congress–which officially and explicitly used the term “white” in its statement about counting the population. Moreover, the defining of the slave identity once again appeared within the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Provisions created during the convention thusly gave allowance to whites running southern states to count slaves as 3/5 persons (Three-Fifths Clause) so whites there could have more representation in the new Congress.

One cannot forget the history behind the 1662 Virginia law that in particular focused on the behavior directed toward mixed-race people. The notion of the ‘one drop rule’ was consequently constructed. This legal means for identifying who was Black was judicially upheld as recent as 1985 “when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as ‘white’ on her passport.”

Science has also had a historical significant part in defining Black as well. In essence, Blacks were not only seen as property, but subhuman. The work of individuals such as George Mason, Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), Louis Agassiz, and Immanuel Kant, to the ghastly experiments performed on unwilling female slaves performed by Dr. J. Marion Sims underscored Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments:

Whether the black of the negro reside [sic] in the reticular membrane between the skin and the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature.

White elites have also defined Blacks through name. In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau used the term Negro for the first time to define Black Americans. Even though Blacks began to construct their identity by replacing Negro with more empowering categories such as Colored, Black, and African American, the U.S. census continued to use Negro and refused to change the identifiable marker for participants. The decision to drop Negro as an option was not decided until 2013. This is an illustration of the power to not only control the nomenclature, but also one’s identity. All of which is within the hands of Whites.

Finally, there are countless, and too many to state here, historical and contemporary examples within the White controlled media, news industry, literature publications, and even pornography to define what is Black. Together they have identified us as the boogeyman. We are the rapist, foreigner, oversexed, stupid, and violent underbelly of U.S. citizenry. Being Black in America, one is born with an imposed identity as “Other.”

All Donald Trump has been doing for the past eight years with his investigations, statements challenging our President’s allegiance, intelligence, academic credentials, religion, and birthright, is continuing said trend. A trend that is truly “American.”

Colin Kaepernick, Racial Identity and the Power of Protest

NFL player Colin Kaepernick has made headlines recently by refusing to stand for the national anthem before football games in protest. It’s a protest linked to racial identity and politics, as Kaepernick has said that he wants to draw attention to the issue of police brutality, specifically toward people of color in the US. However, a number of political pundits, celebrities and self-identified patriots on social media have taken issue with Kaepernick’s protest. While some of the push back he has received is about the politics of patriotism, a good deal of it is about whether his racial identity gives him the authority and legitimacy to talk about race.

(Image source)

Kaepernick is biracial and was adopted and raised by white parents. His white birthmother is among the critics of his protest, who scolded him on Twitter, saying:

Some, like Fox News anchor Brian Kilmead, thought Kaepernick ungrateful to his white adoptive parents. Kilmead said: “Let’s be honest, he was adopted by two white parents, he was well supported. He is a great athlete, I’m sure he worked hard, I also heard his grades were great.”

Issues of racial identity and colorism are a key part of this story, as Rebecca Carroll writing at The Guardian, observes:

“While being light-skinned black or biracial, as Kaepernick is, affords its own privileges in a society riddled not just by racism but also by colorism, it doesn’t offer full immunity from racism – or anything close to it. Trolls called Kaepernick racial epithets, after all. He is a reminder that being black in America, no matter how light or dark skinned you are, means shielding yourself against the inevitable arbitrary assessment of your worth at the drop of a dime.”

As a self-identified multiracial scholar, the Kaepernick controversy has made think a lot about racial identity. I’m intrigued by the geneaology of race and racial identities—how much our categories for racial identification shift, yet how much they seemingly remain the same. The interest isn’t purely an intellectual one-it’s personal too. My mother is White (Irish) and my father is Brown (Latino). Because race is so salient in the United States—it’s how we organize and categorize much of our society—race is an integral part of our identity.

Personally, I’ve just had a difficult journey figuring out where I fit in. I was never Latina enough. I didn’t speak the language or embody the culture. Whites knew I wasn’t one of them-my nose looked different, my hair much too dark. But in a society that places a premium on race, how do you find consciousness if your existence has been racialized but you don’t fit into the preexisting racial categories? How can you be heard? What is your role in the fight for racial justice?

The public often uses racial identity as a litmus test as to whether people can attest to certain kinds of racial realities and lived experiences. If you’re black, then you can discuss the lived experiences of what your particular life has been like as a veritable person of color. If you’re white, you can try to understand the realities of white privilege and the oppression people of color must contend with in their daily navigation of life. But racial identity in much of the Western world has largely been constructed as dichotomous—you are black or you are white. If you’re racially ambiguous, your own testament to experiences as a member of a marginalized community is often silenced.

(Image source)

Kaepernick, like Jesse Williams an actor with a black father and a white mother who spoke out about racial injustice in a speech at the BET awards, have both faced resistance because of their mixed racial backgrounds, though both self-identify as Black. As the number of biracial and multiracial people in the United States increases, how do we reconfigure racial categories in a way that allows people to define their own realities and speak about issues that affect them as racialized bodies and beings?

Biracial and multiracial communities are not a monolith and they experience varying degrees of racialization. To be black and white is not the same as being white and Japanese. The racial identities of multiracial and biracial people are often constructed and decided for them, not by them, and when they do speak to issues of racism they are often silenced or discredited. In a country that continues to be plagued by the insidiousness of racism, the inclusion and validation of the experiences of marginalization is more important than ever to spark change.


In his prescient and seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B DuBois suggested that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Written in 1903, DuBois couldn’t foresee how relevant and timely his work would be in the 21st century. Dubois explores the black experience in the United States and the construction of race and its implications for power and control. One of Dubois’ more salient concepts, “double consciousness,” articulates the experience of viewing yourself through the eyes of the oppressed and the oppressor simultaneously and asserts a framework for understanding the lived experiences of people of color. Conversely, in The Souls of White Folk (1920), DuBois aims to understand whiteness and its accompanying constructed and ensuing white superiority, imperialism, and colonialization.


In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), philosopher Frantz Fanon spends much time unpacking the psychological implications of colonization for people of color, articulating a resistance theory that defied the “dependency complex of the colonized” (Chapter 4). Fanon argues that Black people must actualize their critical consciousness toward empowerment. White people have constructed whiteness to be superior, and some Black people, Fanon posits, internalize the notion that white people are superior and develop an inferiority complex. But what happens to people of a multiracial or biracial background? Where do they (we) fit in now? Where did they (we) fit in historically?


Historically, there has only been Black or White when it comes to racial identity. There has been little wiggle room in between for emerging/shifting/evolving racial identities. This racially dichtomized categorization has been reinforced through our history. For example, think of the antiquated “one drop rule,” which decreed that anyone with a drop of “black blood” would be considered black. During slavery, children born to a slave mother immediately adopted her social and racial status despite the racial status of the father. Sure, you had the dehumanizing and mathematical sounding fractional configurations of racial identity—octoroon, quadroon, and mulatto. But all of those labels signified varying degrees of blackness. Biraciality and multiracialty weren’t concrete identities; to whites, these were gradations of Blackness. To other blacks, those gradations came with social and material benefits associated with proximity to whiteness.


By refusing to stand for the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick has not only made headlines. He’s asserted his right to speak out about racial justice and distanced himself from the benefits of whiteness.



~ Alyssa Lyons is a graduate student in sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY


On Burkini Bans and Institutional Racism

The photos capture a woman lying serenely on a pebble beach in a full-body swimsuit. She is unaware of the four men as they approach. They wear guns and bulletproof vests, and demand the woman remove her shirt. They watch as she complies.

French police approach woman in burkini on beach

(Image source: The Guardian)

This scene was reported in recent weeks by news outlets across the globe. More than twenty coastal towns and cities in France imposed bans on the burkini, the full body swimsuit favored by religious Muslim women. Like many, I have been transfixed by the images of brazen discrimination and shaming. Although the woman in the photographs, identified only as Siam, was not wearing a burkini, her body was targeted by a racist institution, the State.

French politicians have falsely linked the burkini with religious fundamentalism. They have employed both blatant and subtly racist language to express indignation at the sight of a non-white, non-Western female body in a public space designated as “white.”

Olivier Majewicz, the Socialist mayor of Oye-Plage, a town on the northern coast of France, described a Muslim woman on the beach as appearing “a bit wild, close to nature.” Her attire, he said, was not “what one normally expects from a beachgoer…we are in a small town and the beach is a small, family friendly place.” France’s Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, utilized more direct language, stating that the burkini enslaved women and that the “nation must defend itself.” Similarly blunt, Thierry Migoule, an official with the municipal services in Cannes, said the burkini “conveys an allegiance to the terrorist movements that are waging war against us.”

These quotes reflect the pernicious limitations of the white gaze. When I look at the photos of Siam, I see a woman, a mother, being forced to undress before a crowd of strangers. I can hear her children, terrified, crying nearby. Siam’s encounter was a scene of trauma, and as Henri Rossi, the vice president of the League of Human Rights in Cannes, said “this trauma has not been cured; the convalescence has not yet begun.”

Some sixty years ago, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, explored the relationships between the white gaze and the black body, specifically in France and its colonies. In the age of the burkini ban, Fanon’s observations ring poignant and true. He writes: “…we were given the occasion to confront the white gaze. An unusual weight descended on us. The real world robbed us of our share. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty.” Fanon’s words could serve as the soundtrack to Siam’s encounter with the police. She was robbed of her share, her body negated and deemed a public threat by the white gaze.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France, politicians have capitalized on the politics of fear in order to renegotiate the boundaries of institutional racism as expressed in the public sphere. In Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes quote Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard (Sexism, Racism and Oppression) about the ever-changing “terms of oppression.” Brittan and Maynard write:

“the terms of oppression are not only dictated by history, culture, and the sexual and social division of labor. They are also profoundly shaped at the site of the oppression, and by the way in which oppressors and oppressed continuously have to renegotiate, reconstruct, and re-establish their relative positions in respect to benefits and power.”

As the burkini affords Muslim women the benefit to participate in different arenas of public space, the state recalibrates its boundaries to create new or revive previous sites of oppression. In the case of the burkini, the sites of oppression are both public beaches and women’s bodies – common sites of attempted domination, not only in France, but also the U.S.

Fanon, Feagin and Sikes all point to institutional racism as an engine that fuels white supremacy and its policies of discrimination. As Feagin and Sikes observe, these:

“recurring encounters with white racism can be viewed as a series of ‘life crises,’ often similar to other serious life crises, such as the death of a loved one, that disturb an individual’s life trajectory.”

The photos of Siam capture the unfolding of life crisis and illustrate the power of institutional racism to inflict both individual and collective traumas.


~ Julia Lipkins is a student in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. 

Research Brief: Collateral Damage to Health from Invasive Police Encounters in New York City

Overpolicing in the form of invasive police encounters like stop-and-frisk affects the health of residents in American neighborhood according to sociologists Abigail Sewell and Kevin A. Jefferson. This infographic illustrates the key findings in their research.



(Image credit: Melissa Brown)

In a recent Journal of Urban Health article, they use data from two datasets based on the health and policing experiences of New Yorkers. They argue that numerous public health risks are associated with overpolicing including:

  • Poor/fair health
  • Overweight/Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Asthma episodes

In their analysis of the health and policing in New York, the researchers sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the health effects of the concentration of police stops within certain neighborhoods?
  2. Is there a relationship between reports of poor health and invasive Terry stops?
  3. If health effects of invasive police encounters in neighborhoods exist, do they vary by race and ethnicity?

The researchers found that neighborhoods with high frisk rates increased the odds of having health issue related to all the risks mentioned above. They also found that police stops generally worsen the health of Blacks and Latinos, but does not have as significant effect for Whites and Asians. In light of these results, the researchers argue that police actions potentially affect communities by exposing residents to invasive practices that generate illness. You can download a pdf of the graphic here.


~ Melissa Brown is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Maryland and social media manager for the Critical Race Initiative

Burkini Ban: Racialization of Muslim Women’s Bodies

For most of my life, I’ve traveled between the US and the Middle East. During the school year, my neighbors and friends were devout Christians in Texas. In the summers, I socialized with my extended family and friends who were equally devout Muslims in Egypt. Each society believed the other oppressed its women. Both based these conclusions on the covering or uncovering of women’s bodies.

My Christian friends often lamented how Muslim women must be subjugated under the headscarves and long gowns that they presumed were imposed on them by men. The hijab, in its various forms, corroborated the Orientalist critique that the Middle East had failed to modernize with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, my Muslim friends pitied American women for exposing so much of their bodies due to a presumed need to please men’s sexual desires in a patriarchal society. Bikinis and miniskirts was further proof that hedonism and materialism was subjugating women in Western society.

Thus, the current debate over Burkinis is just the latest iteration of a transnational fixation on women’s bodies in public debates over morality, modernity, and freedom — with a new twist. Women’s bodies are now at the center of national security anxieties. Weeks prior to the Burkini bans passed by over fifteen French cities, a French citizen killed eighty five people when he ploughed through a crowd in Nice. The tragedy understandably engendered debates on how to improve security in France.

But the perpetrator’s Muslim identity also unleashed collective punishment on France’s Muslim population, with a particular focus on women. Indeed, French controversy over Muslim women’s head coverings has surpassed purported claims to preserve laicite. What a woman wears now affects whether citizens feel safe from terrorism. That is, the very sight of a Burkini in France instills fear and anxiety among (non-Muslim) French citizens.

Such irrational fears are privileged over France’s proclaimed commitment to individual liberty, as the Muslim woman is denied her right to choose what to put on her body in a public beach. Instead of being viewed as an individual French citizen with liberty rights, she is a representative of a group held in contempt solely for its religious affiliation.

The Burkini controversy in France, however, is not much different than the culture wars over abortion in America. Nor is it dissimilar to cultural family honor codes in Muslim majority countries. In America, women’s bodies are at the center of moral debates about life, death, and morality. If a woman becomes pregnant, her choice as to whether to carry the fetus to full term is not a matter of private liberty. Rather, it is at the center of a heated public debate about when life begins and murder occurs. As lawsuits and media campaigns contest these issues, American women’s bodies are transformed into passive vessels. The latest chapter in this culture war was recently on full display when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that shut down fifty percent of the state’s abortion clinics.

Similarly, in many Muslim majority countries, women shoulder the burden of preserving the family’s reputation and honor in society. If her clothing or behavior signals a lack of morals or sexual promiscuity, the entire family’s reputation is tarnished. All the while, her male relatives are often given a free pass if they violate religious tenets. Thus, what a woman places on her head, face, and body are a matter of public concern in a patriarchal society. While most Muslim-majority societies enforce these rules through cultural practices, Saudi Arabia and Iran have codified into law women’s dress codes in public—much like the French city laws banning the Burkini.

Women in both Eastern and Western societies face multiple coercive measures—through law, religious precepts or social pressures—to manage their bodies in ways that appease patriarchal norms. Whether the fight is over a woman’s reproductive organs or her hair, the latest Burkini ban controversy shows that the fixation on women’s bodies traverses continents. Until women’s bodies are no longer the political footballs in policy debates that hold little regard for a woman’s individual liberty, gender oppression will remain a transnational problem.

Sahar Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim American Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality

This article first appeared in The New Arab and is reprinted here by permission.

Decolonizing White Sociology

Just as sociology notoriously failed to predict the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 60s, it was unprepared for the eruption of racial conflict that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement. As before, dominant discourses complacently assumed that the nation had made great strides in “race relations,” highlighted by the election of “the first black president” in 2008.

By uncanny coincidence, the 1963 meeting of the American Sociological Association occurred on the same day as the historic March on Washington. In his presidential address Everett Hughes posed the right question: “Why did social scientists—and sociologists in particular—not foresee the explosion of collective action of Negro Americans toward immediate full integration into American society?” However, Hughes was utterly incapable of providing an answer to his own question and drifted off into pedantic obfuscation.

Actually, there were some sociologists who did anticipate the racial upheaval that “exploded” in the 1960s. Chief among them was W.E.B. Du Bois who wrote in 1906, at a meeting of the Niagara Movement in Harpers Ferry that spawned the NAACP:

We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.

Du Bois was not alone. There was a cadre of minority and radical scholars who anticipated the civil rights revolution, precisely because it fit into their theoretical and political paradigm. But like Du Bois, they were regarded as substituting politics for science, and were ignored or marginalized.

Aldon Morris’s recent book, The Scholar Denied, is a canonical game changer because it vitiates sociology’s origin myth and demonstrates incontrovertibly that Du Bois is the rightful primogenitor of “Chicago sociology.” Morris’s larger purpose is to challenge dominant discourses in sociology that, ever since the inception of the discipline at the University of Chicago in 1892, have not only elided the groundbreaking and transformative contributions of black sociologists, but have also provided epistemic justification for racial hierarchy.

As Australian sociologist R. W. Connell reminds us, “sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism and embodied a cultural response to the colonized world.” Here is a jolt to “the scholastic unconscious.” Through Connell’s theoretical lens, it becomes clear that the race relations cycle advanced by Robert Park far from being value-free, embodies the logic of colonialism.

The four stages of the race relations cycle—contact, competition, accommodation, and assimilation—have been recited like a catechism by generations of sociologists on doctoral exams, oblivious to the ideological assumptions that lurk behind this deceptively innocuous language. “Contact,” according to Park, refers to groups who “come together through migration or conquest”—a specious shorthand for the systematic plunder of entire continents by Western powers over centuries, beginning with a global slave trade that transported over 12 million Africans to the New World to provide slave labor for plantation economies. The second stage in the cycle—“competition”—is yet another euphemism for colonial domination and the slave trade, including the system of “internal colonialism” that developed in countries that imported slaves. The third stage—“accommodation”—refers to the process whereby the vanquished group is rendered incapable of more than token resistance, and relations between the oppressor and the oppressed are normalized through law and custom. Assimilation, the final stage, refers to the ultimate incorporation of the subordinate group, culturally and biologically, into the society of the more advanced group. As Park wrote with chilling equanimity: “Races and cultures die—it has always been so—but civilization lives on.”

Hence, progress—the advance of civilization—was the pot of gold that lay at the end of the sociological rainbow (to borrow a phrase from Albion Small, one of the founders of Chicago sociology). The core assumption undergirding this epistemology is that both overseas and internal colonialism are part of a global teleology whereby peoples at a lower plane of civilization are incorporated into the culture and institutions of groups that have innate superiority over the peoples they dominate.

Sociologist Stanford Lyman argued that this evolutionary optimism helps to explain why sociology failed to apprehend, much less champion, civil rights until forced to do so by the rise of black insurgency in the South. As he wrote sardonically in 1993, “since the time for teleological redemption is ever long, blacks might consign their civic and egalitarian future to faith in the ultimate fulfillment of the inclusion cycles promise.” Sociology’s race relations cycle thus served to put full inclusion and social emancipation on pause by presenting assimilation as a matter of future inevitability rather than one of present urgency. Lyman stated flat out that “sociology has been part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills provides another jolt to the colonial unconscious with a blanket indictment of race knowledge, suggesting that it is predicated on “an epistemology of ignorance” whose whole purpose is to obscure rather than to illuminate. To quote Mills:

One could say then, as a general rule, that white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years, a cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement.

The ironic outcome, as Mills says, is that “whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”

So much for the fabled Chicago School of Race Relations. Indeed, it was not until the black protest movement—in both its nonviolent and violent forms—and the attendant upheaval that threw the entire society into crisis and led to the burning of cities—that sociology made the shift from the obfuscating terminology “race relations” to its rightful name: “racial oppression.” Radical and minority voices that had long been ignored or marginalized were, for the first time, thrust to the center of both academic and popular discourses.

By the 1980s, however, the race relations paradigm was restored to hegemony and today—half-a-century after the civil rights revolution—mainstream sociologists have reverted to discourses that prevailed half a century earlier. They celebrate “racial progress” and improved “race relations,” and when confronted with conditions at odds with their rosy diagnosis, they invoke the discredited culture-of-poverty theory (albeit in new rhetorical guise) as well as other articulations of victim-blaming discourses that prevailed even before the civil rights revolution.

This raises the paramount question: how do we explain intellectual hegemony and the process by which certain ideas achieve hegemonic status? This requires that we do more than examine the subtle ways that sociologists consciously and unconsciously reproduce social inequalities in our departments, universities, and even within the American Sociological Association. These issues are important, but the larger issue regards the structures and dynamics of knowledge production. We need to examine the machinery of hegemony, the precise mechanisms through which ideas become ensconced and canons are formed.

This requires that we subject the sociological enterprise to the critical eye that C. Wright Mills brought to The Power Elite. This begins with elite universities whose imprimatur alone launches careers, opens up doors to prestigious publishing houses and the op-ed pages of leading newspapers, and helps secure grants from foundations and government agencies. Grants, in turn, allow these entrepreneurs to form “schools” and “dream teams” that propagate their pet theories to fledgling scholars. It is an open secret that the academic wheel is greased with money, which means that the people and interests who control the purse strings are the engineers of knowledge production. Like the referee system for journals, the referee system for grants, functions to enforce ideological conformity by rejecting submissions that go too far in challenging the prevailing wisdom. Meanwhile, professional associations that often resemble fraternal societies, create rewardtocracies that dispense honorific titles, awards, and sinecures that invest hegemony with an indispensable aura of legitimacy.

To be sure, dissident viewpoints are tolerated in the academy, if only because they sustain the myth of the liberal university as a bastion of diversity and dissent. I do not deny the existence or vitality of diversity and dissent—rather, the key issue pertains to which viewpoints prevail. Which receive material support? Which are canonized? Above all, which are influential in terms of politics and public policy? In the final analysis, the ultimate test of critical reflexivity is not scoring debating points but rather advancing the cause of racial justice. And creating a social science that lives up to its emancipatory promise.

Stephen Steinberg is a Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and the Ph.D. Program in Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of many books, including Race Relations: A Critique. (Note: this post first appeared on the Stanford Press blog: http://stanfordpress.typepad.com/blog/2016/08/decolonizing-sociology.html)

More Hostility to Spanish: An Arizona Mayor

Fort Huachuca City is a small community in Arizona (pop. 1900) located approximately 20 miles from the Mexican Border. Mayor Ken Taylor was upset when he received an invitation to a meeting of U.S. and Mexican border city mayors because it was written in both English and Spanish, or “Spanish/Mexican,” as he put it in an email to John Cook, executive director of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association in El Paso:

I will NOT attend a function that is sent to me in Spanish/Mexican. One nation means one language and I am insulted by the division caused by language.

Cook’s reply to Taylor’s email was sharp:

I will certainly remove you from our email list. The purpose of the Border Mayors Association is to speak with one voice in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City about issues that impact our communities, not to speak in one language. My humble apologies if I ruffled your feathers.

Taylor, in turn, responded in a manner reminiscent of developer-candidate Donald Trump:

America is going ‘Down Hill’ fast because we spend more time catering to others that are concerned with their own self interests. It is far past time to remember that we should be ‘America First’ … there is NOTHING wrong with that. My feathers are ruffled anytime I see anything American putting other countries First. If I was receiving correspondence from Mexican interests, I would expect to see them listed First. Likewise, when I see things produced from America, I EXPECT to see America First.

Mr. Taylor’s reaction is rooted in a portion of the White Racial Frame that vilifies Latinos and their culture and language. It was early developed by Southern slaveholders and other white elites to justify the US seizure of sovereign Mexican territory in the mid 1800’s. This segment of the White Racial Frame received a “shot in the arm” as a result of the spread of Trump’s blatant anti-Latino rhetoric.

Mr. Taylor should be aware of two things:

First, to call Spanish “foreign” is ignorant of history. The presence of Spanish in what is known today as “the Southwest” precedes the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Second, with the growth of the Latino population, Spanish has become indispensable for businesses and government, maybe not in Fort Huachuca City but definitely everywhere else. Spanish is here to stay.

Dangers in Normalizing Racism: Trump Wildly Attacks Obama

Sometimes it seems that only late night comedians such as Seth Myers have nailed Donald J. Trump’s bigotry and normalization of racism. According to Myers,

We can’t become immune to it. We cannot allow it to become normalized.

Referring to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslim immigrants to the United States knowingly protecting terrorists, Myers noted, “To be clear, this is bigotry, plain and simple.”

The tepid reporting by most cable news and print commentators of Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory comments at a rally near Fort Lauderdale, Florida on August 10, 2016 declaring that President Barack Obama “honors Isis” and is the “founder of Isis” fails to identify the flagrantly racist nature of his most recent attack. In Trump’s words, President Obama “is the most valuable player” for Isis. Even a Trump supporter on a recent CNN broadcast, admitted that Trump’s emphasis on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in the Fort Lauderdale rally, might have been designed to suggest that Obama is a foreign sympathizer.

After reiterating his claim of President Obama founding Isis several times on August 10 including during a news interview with conservative commentator, Hugh Hewitt, Trump backtracked the next day, declaring his remarks were simply “sarcasm” and adding “but not that sarcastic to be honest with you.”

Most subsequent news accounts of the rally have carefully avoided the mention of race and launched into extensive analyses of the ways in which Obama could or could not be deemed responsible for the rise of Isis. Even Hillary Clinton’s tweets in response to Trump’s commented were understated and did not mention the racist nature of these comments. As she wrote,

No, Barack Obama is not the founder of Isis. . . . Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our Commander-in Chief.

Ironically, relatively few commentators and mostly those from minority groups have zeroed in on the racist nature of Trump’s delegitimization of President Obama and the ways in which Trump has galvanized the anger of blue-collar and other white workers about their perceived loss of stature in an increasingly minority majority country. The New York Times Editorial Board on August 11 did identify Trump’s “racist rage” against the president as “appealing to the mob.”

Much earlier, during the Democratic primary race, Bernie Sanders keyed in on the “unprecedented level of obstructionism” against President Obama, naming the birther issue that Trump raised as specific evidence of what he termed “a racist effort.” As Sanders keenly observed,

No one has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it’s the color of my skin, who knows?

The delegitimization of President Obama re-launched by Donald Trump draws on consistent themes that Trump has promoted for more than five years. Trump has repeatedly blasted President Obama as incompetent, a theme frequently leveled against minorities and women as underscored in recent sociological research. The implication that Obama is a secret Kenyan-born Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists labels the President as un-American, an outsider, and a foreigner. Add this to Trump’s call for a ban on immigration of Muslim immigrants and the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States; his declaration of Mexican immigrants as in many cases drug dealers, criminals, and racists; his reluctance to disavow the Klu Klux Klan; his criticism of the mother of Army Captain Humayun Khan; and the claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased due to his Mexican heritage: it all adds up to a single, irrefutable refrain.

As Nicholas Kristoff concludes after analyzing four decades of a consistent pattern in Trump’s words and actions, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.”